On February 13 and 14, 1945 US and British troops firebombed the non-military German city of Dresden, killing somewhere between 35,000 and 135,000 civilians. In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote about his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombings in Slaughterhouse Five. It is a beautiful, hilarious, bizarre, horrifying novel or your average Kurt Vonnegut book.
It is a true Vonnegut novel in that it isn’t straight fiction. Who else would write a novel about a fire bombing that includes a time traveling, alien abducted, hero and barely says a word about the actual fire bombing? In his introduction the author describes how it took him several years to be able to write his Dresden book. He visits fellow witnesses, drinks lots of booze, and generally has a rough time of it. Then he proceeds to tell us exactly how his story begins and the words that conclude the novel. It is as if the narrative itself isn’t important, but rather its underlying themes and ideas.
The narrative itself involves Billy Pilgrim, a bumbling, incompetent replacement soldier. He started the war as a priest’s assistant, but finds himself being moved closer to the front. He doesn’t manage to get far before he is captured by the Germans, and sent to Dresden. Mixed in with this simple narrative is Pilgrim’s abduction by aliens and his ability to travel through time, albeit without any type of control. The novel weaves throughout periods of Pilgrim’s life. From the war, to what would be called the present, to the future where he spends his time in an alien zoo making love to a dirty movie star. This is dusted with a dry philosophy that time is meaningless and individual destiny is a myth. What happens happens, and so it goes.
It is a breezy, novel written in a seemingly stream-of-conscience style. But one shouldn’t let the novel’s ease of reading confuse it with a simple throw away novel. No, Vonnegut obviously spent a great deal of time and skill crafting a novel that is deceptively simple, yet serves a thick plate of ideas. It is written in the third person from Vonnegut’s own point of view. Several times the author stops and let’s us know that the character he has just described, or quoted is, in fact, himself.
The firebombing of Dresden itself it given but few details. We see the bombing as Vonnegut himself did, from underground in a shelter. The little we do see is the aftermath, the rubble and destruction. But the massacre is never far from the author’s lips. While detailing the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, whether marching with fellow soldiers, on route to Dresden via putrid trains, or sitting naked on an alien planet, we see the end, we can almost smell the charred masses after the bombing.
It is an anti-war novel that doesn’t wear its position on its sleeve. There are many moments of laugh out loud hilarity. It is read so fluidly that it is hard to stop during the more poignant moments to feel the sting of emotion. There are no gung-ho moments of war bravado. There are no heroes to be found in the novel, and as Vonnegut says in the introduction, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..." It does give us a moving portrait of your average soldier fighting a war he doesn’t understand, seeing atrocities he cannot comprehend. Yet somehow he (and we) are supposed to continue living our lives as atrocious massacres are somehow normal, acceptable things.
And so it goes.